Rosa Parks was a young black woman who, returning home from work one evening on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., refused to turn over her seat to a person of another color, as the law required. That simple assertion of human dignity took place in 1955 and it ignited a revolution in attitudes in America and throughout the world.
History thrust a young Baptist minister from Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., into the leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott and, later, the civil rights movement. He became the architect of the greatest movement of citizen action in modern times, one that empowered millions of citizens, black and white, whose lives had been devoid of dignity and hope.
Rosa Parks is a legend in Detroit, where she lives and works. The nation last Jan. 15 commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's birth date and, last February, the 11th anniversary of his assassination. The House of Representatives this week will decide whether Dr. King's birth date should be a national holiday.
In each Congress from 1968 onward, I have introduced legislation to designate Dr. King's birth date a national public holiday. This year, 125 House sponsors won a vote of approval in the Post Office and Civil Service Committee to report the bill for floor action. Thirty-eight senators sponsor the legislation, which has the full support of the leaders of Congress and the president. Thirteen states, as well as most major cities, already honor Dr. King. Because his memory is revered by peoples throughout the world, his gravesite in Atlanta has become a national shrine at which the world's leaders pay their respects.
By commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth date, we do more than honor one man, however extraordinary; we honor the profound spirit of love and concern for humanity that guided his life and inspired his fellow men. The meaning of his life -- and what each of us needs to relearn and reflect upon -- is captured in what he said in 1964 when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize:
Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our times -- the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind."
Those who regard Dr. King as the leader of a narrow cause of the spokesman for a single group fail to share his vision of the interdependency of every human life. Injustice in any form, affecting anyone, was viewed by Dr. King as a threat to everyone. Oppression against one group was oppression against us all. His politics was harnessed to an overriding moral imperative to improve the lives of all human beings, whether he fought to end segregation in Birmingham, win full political rights in Selma, overcome job and housing discrimination in Memphis or bring an end to the war in Vietnam.
Dr. King was a deeply religious man, the son and grandson of two prominent ministers in whose church -- the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta -- he too became a minister. His training in theology led from Atlanta's Morehouse College and Pennsylvania's Crozer Theological Seminary through the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and Boston University, where he earned a doctorate in philosophy. The social gospel that he studied he later practiced, according to Luke, "to heal the broken-hearted, to free the captives to set at liberty them that are bruised."
Public holidays in the United States are reserved for celebrating great traditions in the nation's history, our highest ideals and leaders who have shaped our common destiny. Dr. King lived and died for our ideals of justice, human dignity and freedom. In practicing nonviolent, citizen action, he embodied the political tradition in America that originated with the Pilgrims' settlement in 17th-century New England, that continued with the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution and that in one form or another has been practiced in grass-roots citizen movements up to the present day. Designating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth date a national holiday would represent another giant step forward in reconciling the livess and aspirations of all peoples who compose the American nation.